Kevin Blankinship Reviews War Songs: ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād
War Songs: `Antarah Ibn Shaddad is the latest achievement of the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), funded by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute. It joins a list of twenty-six titles with more to come. For each of these, a single scholar uses original manuscripts to create a reliable print edition and translate it to English, all in collaboration with accomplished Arabists. The books are published as elegant bilingual hardbacks and English-only paperbacks. For War Songs, professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge James Montgomery has teamed up with longtime translators Richard Sieburth and Peter Cole.
The poems themselves, along with Montgomery’s formidable apparatus of footnotes, atlases, and concordances, flesh out the world of `Antarah. He belonged to a class of pre-Islamic “rider-warriors” acting as local proxies in the desert backlands to the sixth century’s great powers, Rome and Persia. But those empires’ inability to control their own mercenaries led to the “instability and turmoil that characterized northern Arabia.” One consequence was the forty-year War of `Abs and Dhubyan, in which `Antarah became embroiled on the side of `Abs, his father’s clan. `Antarah’s voice gives us a firsthand account of the conflict, but more than that, it evokes an entire “cosmos of war,” demanding adherence to honor (`ird) by bravely confronting fate. “War was effectively a religion” Montgomery declares. Fighters like `Antarah were obsessed with their weapons, their warhorses, their battle gear, their spoils. And a key sacrament of this bloodsoaked religion was poetry, since it memorialized the poet and his tribe.
Improbably, readers have Hollywood to thank for an introduction to `Antarah. The push to translate his verse came when a production company phoned Philip Kennedy, the general editor of LAL, about an `Antarah movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. That project has since withered on the vine, but `Antarah persists as a pop culture phenomenon. A medieval folk epic, Sirat `Antar, was once a rival to the 1,001 Arabian Nights for popular appeal in Europe. Syrian director Rami Hanna made a 2008 TV series about him; Nigerian-American sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor released a graphic novel in April, Antar the Black Knight; and this fall, Moemen Helmy has brought out an Arabic language comic, `Antarah, drawn by Indian filmmaker Ashraf Gouri. Along with War Songs, these mass media portrayals make `Antarah poised to capture a whole new audience in the West.
Celebrity comes despite a shortage of surviving details about `Antarah’s life. Montgomery is right to liken him to Arthur of Camelot, whom we know as a legend but not as the man himself. Bearing `Antarah’s likewise mythical status in mind can help readers with a poetic pitch that’s otherwise hard to buy, since one finds War Songs replete with farfetched bluster. In poem 25, on a crushing victory in battle,`Antarah pommels the reader with his own glory as much as he does the enemy with his spear:
An enemy squadron attacked.
My cavalry crushed it,
arms aglitter, hearts high—
silent agents of death . . .
Fearsome heroes, noble and strong
leaping into the fray
when testicles tighten.
In these lines we find what Peter Cole calls in his foreword to War Songs “action-hero or rapper-like over-the-topness, the artfully hyperbolic presentation of a fabled, contest-crazed figure,” falling into the same class as Achilles or Beowulf. There’s even an echo in poem 14 of the trope in contemporary hip hop of “spitting” rhymes, a verb absent in the original Arabic, but the image of smoke like a tongue is close enough. To a defeated foe, `Antarah says:
Like a volcano, I’ll spew
poems that long
after my death
will find and hold you
up to shame.
Thus, readers of War Songs will be disappointed if they expect Wordsworthian confessions from the depths of the poet’s soul. Our `Antarah is less a flesh-and-blood creature than an archetype, an “elemental force of nature” in Montgomery’s words. Here we should remember the need for `Antarah to prove himself, being the enslaved son of a slave mother. There is also the communal element of ancient Arabic poetry, in which the tribe, not the individual, formed the main focus. `Antarah’s boasts and insults, preposterous if taken as private reflections, were meant to stir animal spirits, to crush enemy morale, to beat the drum of war. We wouldn’t hold it against a modern-day general for not being nuanced or introspective when rousing his troops. Why, then, should we hold it against `Antarah?
Yet with the sense that he is putting on airs, his poetry does have an unmistakable voice, which Montgomery says represented the biggest challenge to War Songs (he succeeds admirably, in this reviewer’s mind). It’s a swaggering, squawking voice, but also one of iron resolve bordering on resignation, even trepidation. Poem 8, for instance, starts with the crow’s cawing as an ill omen that leads the poet to reflect on war’s impossible odds:
I won’t be able
to outrun Fate
when she comes.
Here is the same blend of grit and fatalism that one finds in another Arab warrior, Tariq ibn Ziyad, the commander who led the Umayyad Muslim conquest of Visigothic Spain in 711 AD (his name gave us the word Gibraltar, from the Arabic jabal Tariq, “Tariq’s Mountain”). According to legend, Tariq robbed his army of escape by burning their ships after disembarking at Iberia, the better to steel their minds for battle. “My soldiers! Where will you flee?” cries Tariq in a speech said to have been made that day. “Behind you is the sea, and in front, the enemy!” Like `Antarah, confronted by death on all sides, Tariq looks it full in the face, knowing that such is the sole path to honor.
In vivid expression of this macabre encounter, Death itself—in Arabic, al-mawt, al-radā, al-maniyyah, and other names besides—becomes a character in `Antarah’s theater of war. Inescapable demise stalks the hero like the enemy tribesmen he fights, placing `Antarah in a double bind: He cannot escape, and he cannot turn away:
I said to my men
“Who’s up for a wager?
Who’ll face death with me?”
Through repeated meets of this kind, `Antarah grows so intimate with Death that he is led—in the spirit of Oppenheimer’s remark upon seeing the first atomic bomb explode at New Mexico, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”—to identify with his own fate:
Death I know—it looks like me,
grim as battle, when warriors clash
on a packed field.
Here, the twofold meaning is instructive. `Antarah is equal to Death in that he both brings it to others and that he must eventually suffer it himself. On this basis, the poems pass frequently into graphic battlefield descriptions, reveling in carnage for its own sake. In poem 13, for instance, `Antarah jeers morbidly that “my soul, sick with bloodlust, was nearly healed”—but only nearly—as he mows down an entire enemy squadron in a cavalry charge. Some will grow squeamish at these scenes, unable or unwilling to recognize an uncomfortable fact: people are proud to kill for what they love, such as family or country, or what they crave, such as lucre or power.
Facing the certainty of death, `Antarah accepts, even welcomes his fate, knowing that any skirmish may be the last. He takes pleasure in honor secured, but also in trusting that his poetry will make his memory new for every generation, like the promise of Thetis that her son Achilles would have glory in the telling and retelling of his deeds. Perhaps the possibility of cheating death through words is what makes for such a rich company of warrior-poets in every language. This is certainly true of Arabic, as `Antarah’s odes attest.
Those too young to recall the atrocities of their age—the Trojan War, `Abs and Dhubyan, World War I, the Kennedy assassination—can look to the past, and to poetry, for a record of hearts living by their ideals on the battlefield. What is perhaps most beautiful about War Songs is how `Antarah hints at tenderness beneath the violence, defending slaughter for a cause and remaining faithful to tribe and family, even in the face of death. And so it is through the unlikely reality of fighters who also battle with words that these reminders have their force, not just in the moment of sacrifice to war’s unsmiling gods, but in the revered testaments that survive long after.
War Songs is out next month from NYU Press.
Kevin Blankinship is Assistant Professor of Arabic in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. He researches and teaches Arabic language and literature in the context of the Mediterranean world. He also reviews books for general audiences, writes commentary on Middle Eastern culture and society, and works as a freelance translator. You can read his work at LARB Marginalia, Jadaliyya, and Bridges.